Was I at Left Unity's first National Meeting?

19 May 2013

By Richard Brenner

IT’S ONE week since the first national meeting of Left Unity, and after reading some of the more hostile reports and comments I wonder if I was at the same meeting.

A shambles, one report called it. What? 100 delegates assembled from more than 80 local branches, more than half of them elected from a minuted meeting of more than five people, and all from a standing start in little more than a few weeks? Try it. Then tell us this was anything other than a huge achievement.

No major political decisions?  Apart from one, of course. The meeting decided to set up a new political party to challenge Labour from the left. No small matter that! And to do it in November this year, on an accelerated timescale that made even congenital optimists like me gulp a bit.

Badly chaired or disorganised? On reflection, no, not really. After all it was complex. The delegates’ pack contained not just a Statement setting out the views of some leading members like Kate Hudson on what Left Unity should stand for, but a lot of amendments submitted from branches and delegates, and a last minute procedural motion that was always going to be a challenge to deal with.

Huddersfield sent in a thoughtful proposal for a kind of manifesto and wanted it debated. Southwark had adopted an amendment and a proposal from Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network that aimed to strengthen the Statement by committing Left Unity explicitly to an anticapitalist, socialist and working class project (it was clear that Ken Loach supported this view, as he called for a clear socialist orientation in his address to the meeting.) Dave Stockton from Lambeth, a Workers Power supporter, proposed an amendment focused on what we could be fighting for in the here and now over the coming months.

Admittedly it was a tall order to expect people to discuss and vote on all of this at short notice. But there was no need to abort the process altogether. The procedural motion from Nick Wrack and Simon Hardy, which said we should not vote on the motions and amendments, took so long to discuss that it prevented any political discussion of the documents, which in turn meant we didn’t really discuss the political situation in Britain today and what we could do to stop the Tories.

Hindsight is 20-20, but looking back there would have been a much easier way of dealing with it. We could have begun the discussion, and if people felt unable to decide , someone could then have referred the vote to the next national meeting. That could have happened after the political discussion, not instead of it. Oh well, tomorrow is another day, and there will be another meeting in September.

Nor, I have to say, did the meeting ‘firmly rebuff’ the involvement of existing socialist groups in Left Unity, as one article claimed. Yes I’m biased because I’m a member of a group, but I think some ex-members of groups might be being a bit biased too. For example, while many delegates understandably feared sectarians and opportunists moving in and taking over or breaking up Left Unity, there was a definite and legitimate trend in the meeting arguing for a less defensive approach. Everyone agreed members of the SWP or the SP can join as individuals. So why not make it easier for them to counter the discouragement of the sectarians in their ranks by issuing a public appeal to them and making them welcome? That was why I voted for the proposal to give the groups observer rights, though I accept that it was clearly defeated. But:

– Two members of existing socialist groups were elected onto Left Unity’s national coordinating group directly from the meeting: Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance, the British Section of the Fourth International, and Tom Walker of the International Socialist Network, which recently left the SWP

– Several speakers including Will McMahon from London, Pete McLaren from Rugby, Leander from Birmingham Communities against the Cuts and Kris Stewart from the International Socialist Network spoke in favour of Left Unity making approaches to and working with the rest of the left including the largest socialist groups.

Of course it would be ridiculous to imagine that Left Unity can actually ‘unite the whole of the left’. At the same time it is self-defeating to exclude socialist groups that do actually support the project, like Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, the International Socialist Network and so on. I know some comrades won’t like it, because of all manner of concerns, some of which are understandable given the SWP’s behaviour in the Socialist Alliance and Respect. But we should take care not to tar every group with the same brush. And we should avoid like the plague beginning with exclusions, condemnations and a hothouse atmosphere. After all, we want to build a mass party open and appealing to new people. We want to transcend the sects, not add to their number.

Finally, on the debate on women’s representation.  The delegates who support Workers Power (five of us on the day), were not all agreed on how to vote on the quota system of assuring at least 50% of women on the national coordinating group. Some us, myself included, voted for; others voted against. But one thing is for sure. The fact that the discussion took place had its effect, and even without operating the quota the coordinating group we elected on the day had 60% women on it. That means Left Unity begins without reproducing the gender imbalance that capital imposes on most organisations, including on the left. And that is a very good thing.

I’m looking forward to the coming months. I hope we can have an excellent discussion, and that we get to debate out not just the motions and amendments submitted to the 11 May meeting but many more contributions from across the network. I hope we continue to draw in hundreds and hundreds of new people. And I hope our September national meeting can lay the basis for a deep policy discussion that results in the founding of a new, mass, socialist party in 2013-14.


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